Cass Sunstein's Bogeyman -- The Internet as a Threat to Democracy

I recently watched a short speech by a young British Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Daniel Hannan, in which he ripped into the statist policies of the Prime Minister. Mr. Hannan has a blog, and in the following day's post, he describes his sudden Internet celebrity. (The video is spreading like wildfire.) He writes:
The internet has changed politics - changed it utterly and forever. Twenty-four hours ago, I made a three-minute speech in the European Parliament, aimed at Gordon Brown. I tipped off the BBC and some of the newspaper correspondents but, unsurprisingly, they ignored me: I am, after all, simply a backbench MEP.

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain.

How did it happen, in the absence of any media coverage? The answer is that political reporters no longer get to decide what's news. [bold added]
This is an interesting perspective from someone who has something to say, but is regularly ignored by the mainstream media.

Switching tracks for the moment, I have been intrigued lately by a particular pet issue of Cass Sunstein, legal scholar, professor, author, and soon-to-be "regulatory czar" in the Obama administration. I recently read a short article in Harvard Magazine, called "The Internet: Foe of Democracy?" which was about a talk Sunstein gave. A quick Google search will show that Sunstein has written at least 3 books on the topic, perhaps a dozen journal articles, and countless other articles and essays. I point you to this summary article because it's a good encapsulation of nearly a decade of his work.

In all seriousness, thousands of pages of his writing boil down to the following: "The Internet is good, giving people more information than they've ever had, but it could also be really really bad because it lets them pick what they want to read." Now, I suppose you need some context for this to make sense.

Sunstein holds that our country is at core a democracy (not a republic -- a defense of individual rights is not something you'll find in his work) and that one of the most important functions of government, and presumably private institutions as well, is to make sure that "democracy runs well." This seems to have a vague, hard-to-pin-down meaning, but hopfully you'll get the picture. The opening to an interview of Sunstein on Salon.com sets the stage for this whole thing rather well:
Freedom of choice is not always good for democracy. This observation is at the heart of University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein's book "Republic.com 2.0" (an update of "Republic.com" in 2001), which argues that our country's political discourse is fracturing in the information age. Sure, the Internet has been a boon to democracy in all sorts of ways, Sunstein acknowledges -- but if new technology gives us unprecedented access to information, it also gives us more ways to avoid information we don't like. Conservatives are increasingly seeking only conservative views, liberals are seeking only liberal views, and never the twain shall meet.

What gets lost in these polarized times, Sunstein writes, are traditional civic virtues like civility, self-criticism and open-mindedness. ... A central problem, Sunstein argues, is that Americans now think of themselves more as consumers than as citizens. When it comes to the Internet, we demand the right to reinforce our own beliefs without embracing the responsibility to challenge them. [bold added]
So, the Internet is good, but maybe too good, and therefore bad, he argues. Maybe. Note the last phrase in the quote, "the responsiblity to challenge" our beliefs. Key to understanding Sunstein's conception of democracy is that we have a duty, as members of the society, to seek out competing views and challenge our ideas.

If only everyone would deliberate with everyone, making sure to have "unplanned encounters" with competing viewpoints, our democracy would be great. He even calls on the Founding Fathers for support (from the Harvard piece):
The Internet, argues Cass Sunstein, has had a polarizing effect on democracies. Although it has the capacity to bring people together, too often the associations formed online comprise self-selecting groups with little diversity of opinion, explains the Frankfurter professor of law. This confounds the constitutional vision of the founding fathers through a perversion of the notion of free speech. Such environments reinforce preexisting viewpoints, undermining the constructive dialogue that promotes progress in democracies. [bold added]
You may be, like I was, a little confused at the language used here, or you may wonder what the fuss is all about. A "perversion of free speech" because it's too free? And it undermines "the constructive dialogue that promotes progress?" What does that even mean? I had the profound sense that Sunstein and his like-minded friends were using a very specialized language that relied on core assumptions and ideologies that I didn't know enough about to evaluate his arguments.

If the Internet is too free and is thus a threat, what should be done about it? If you read Eric Daniels' excellent and biting review of Sunstein's book, Nudge, you'll have a sense of the type of "soft regulation" that Sunstein advocates to get people to make the right decisions. This view, that the government should "nudge" people for their own good, and the good of the society, pervades all of Sunstein's thought. It's no different with his Internet/Democracy obsession.

In an early book on the topic, Republic.com, he described the threat he saw, and proposed what amounts to a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet. Imagine things like mandating that a conservative blog must have at least 20% of its links pointing to liberal sites. He backed away from this in the sequel, Republic.com 2.0, after getting a lot of criticism. But he is still afraid of the freedom of the Internet.

Why? What is the real reason behind the fear? Because for all the talk about "polarization" and "social fragmentation", the "threat to democracy" argument never rings true, and is never fully substantiated.

Back to our young British MEP, Daniel Hannan. In the blog post quoted above, Hannan concludes:
Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It's all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it's good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible. [bold added]

This seemingly offhand comment, a pithy way to end an article, has answered the question that has perplexed me for weeks: what is Sunstein after? "Lefties have always relied on control," Mr. Hannan writes. That's it!

The expression (not perversion) of free speech on the Internet is not a threat to democracy, but to the people in power (of which class Sunstein is now a part) and their ability to control what people read, what they say, what they know. "Such control is no longer technically feasible," Mr. Hannan says. "Not unless I can nudge the people's choice architecture," Sunstein seems to be saying.

Sunstein is now the Head Nudger In Charge in Obama's administration. His office in OMB oversees the rule-making for all executive agencies such as the FCC and the EPA. I predict we will soon see what a real threat to the republic looks like.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for this article. You have done the research and thinking that many of your readers don't have the time (or strength!) to perform. Your article informs and warns.

You mentioned: " Because for all the talk about "polarization" and "social fragmentation" . . . ."

Some of your readers might like to know that philosopher Ayn Rand identified the notion of "polarization" as an anti-concept, which is one form of invalid concept. "Polarization" is a term employed in an argument from intimidation, a common fallacy. (See "Anti-Concepts" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for more information.)

The fallacy of the anti-concept will be one of the five fallacies Ayn Rand identified that Study Groups for Objectivists will examine beginning May 11 in a six-week study group.

C. August said...

Yes, much of the language is purposefully obfuscatory. Even a word as clear as "democracy" is tainted by it, such that I still don't think, after reading dozens of papers and articles going back well over a decade, that I could give you a good clear definition of what Sunstein means when he writes it. But then again, that is likely the point.

Steve Imparl said...

While I haven't followed this particular issue very closely, it seems Cass Sunstein has been singing this strange song for years and it hasn't grown more persuasive with the passage of time. I don't trust Sunstein and I don't want to see him in the federal government. He uses weasel words like "democracy" when he proposes his paternalistic policies.

You noted,

"I had the profound sense that Sunstein and his like-minded friends were using a very specialized language that relied on core assumptions and ideologies that I didn't know enough about to evaluate his arguments."

I have the same sense. Somehow, I don't see Mr. Sunstein working hard to take in alternative viewpoints that could challenge his rather odd and condescending ideas.

I am profoundly disappointed at this particular presidential appointment. Sunstein appears to be an ivory tower elitist and, for that reason, especially unsuited and unqualified for any position of responsibility in the United States government.

Thanks for your thoughtful assessment of this repugnant political philosophy.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Yes, the internet is a threat to "democracy." But the internet is a friend of Liberty and our Republic. It is exactly in the way Hannan described. Now the talking heads are no longer able to control what news and information we will be forced to consume. At least, until Sunstein and his ilk pass internet spying and cenorship laws.

C. August said...

You're right, EHL, and it will be smuggled in under the idea of "cybersecurity." Even the IT crowd can see it coming... look at the comments on this article at eWeek about the proposed Cybersecurity Act of 2009.

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